November 25, 2013

Cornell Considers Releasing More Data on Sexual Assault Cases

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Cornell administrators are considering whether or not the University should disclose more information about reported sexual assaults around the community.

The University’s reconsideration of its disclosure of sexual assault data comes on the heels of protests at Columbia University, where, last month, more than 600 students demanded the university release more information about sexual assault cases. Among other demands, the protesters asked Columbia to release the number of cases that ended with students being punished.

The case raised questions about how to walk the line between releasing enough information so community members can hold institutions accountable for responding to sexual assaults while protecting individuals’ privacy.

Judicial Administrator Mary Beth Grant J.D. ’88, deputy Title IX coordinator, said Cornell currently releases information mandated by the Clery Act. The federal law requires universities to disclose crime statistics –– including sex offenses –– for incidents that occur on campus, in public areas adjacent to or running through campus and certain non-campus facilities such as Greek housing.

Although Grant acknowledged that the students at Columbia drafted their petition with an emphasis on increasing transparency, she added that Cornell must weigh possible negative consequences that could stem out of releasing more information about sexual assault cases.

One possible concern, for example, is that releasing aggregate data about the results of sexual assault cases would leave out important nuances of individual cases, which could lead people to misinterpret data, Grant said.

A case that is reported as “no action,” for example, could be interpreted as “lack of evidence, false report or failure of the institution to take action” when, in fact, some cases are not followed through because the complainant does not want to participate in the [judicial] process or does not want the respondent to get in trouble, Grant said.

Grant also said such misinterpretations could be especially troubling for potential complainants, who might look at the statistics and feel like the University is not taking sexual assault cases seriously.

“For people who have been assaulted and considering whether to report, they would be trying to interpret a complicated and nuanced decision,” Grant said.

Yale’s administration confronted such concerns earlier this year, when they released additional data about sexual assault cases and were criticized by students and alumni. Yale students and alumni alleged that the statistics reflected the University’s inadequate action against sexual assaults on or around campus.

Yale’s semi-annual report –– released in July –– revealed that six students who were found guilty of “nonconsensual sex” during the first half of 2013 were allowed to continue attending school. Of the six students, four were given written reprimands, one received probation and one student was suspended from Yale for two semesters and placed on probation for the remainder of his time at Yale.

In a statement in August, Yale University said their commitment to revealing information while protecting individuals’ confidentiality meant the reports “cannot fully capture the diversity and complexity of the circumstances associated with the complaints, or the factors that determined the outcomes and sanctions.”

Another concern is that information required by Clery Act might not match up with information provided within the Judicial Administrator jurisdiction, because the respective jurisdictions are different. Grant said the mismatch in numbers could confuse people or lead people to believe that the institution is not being transparent.

The Clery Act requires institutions to report information about crime on campus and “contiguous areas,” but if the University were to report all the assaults on students on and off-campus, the numbers might not match up between Clery statistics and the statistics on sexual assault cases.

“We want to be transparent but also want to make sure that the information we provide doesn’t create false impressions or concerns inadvertently,” Grant said. “We just want to be careful.”

Although it is not clear what additional information, if any, the University will choose to disclose, Education Director Tiffany Greco from The Ithaca Advocacy Center said releasing more information may open up constructive conversation.

If more information reveals that many sexual assault cases on campus are not going through full judicial process, it will provide an opportunity for dialogue about why that is, and if the reverse is revealed and most perpetrators are being investigated and punished, it will provide a chance for the university to showcase efforts toward justice for victims, she said.

“In either case, more information could open up conversations about potential barriers, perceived or real, to investigations and punishments on campus for these crimes,” she said.

Grant said the Title IX coordinating team will examine reports available in Cornell and peer institutions to gauge what consequences might result from releasing more information about cases and judicial proceedings.

“We want to better understand those decisions [not to disclose more information] before we make our own decision,” she said.

What is clear, however, is that Cornell will not publicize results of individual cases. “[The Title IX Coordinating Team] believe the results of an individual case should not be shared,” Grant said.